Expert opinion is divided over the potential benefits of the Pentagon's nascent efforts to develop a new prototype attack helicopter. The Department of Defense hopes its efforts will preserve what it believes to be a vital component of the USA's defence industrial base, but analysts question if it will be enough.
Speaking at a Credit Suisse conference in New York in November, undersecretary of defense for acquisition, technology and logistics Frank Kendall said the helicopters sector was one area he is concerned about "preserving our capacity" for new designs. "I sent a letter out to the services recently on starting a prototyping programme that DARPA [Defense Advanced Projects Research Agency] will lead that I'd like the services to be involved in."
The most recent US attempt at a new military helicopter design, the Comanche, was cancelled in 2004
The prototype attack-helicopter development programme could get under way "a year or two down the road", says Kendall. However, the Pentagon first plans to undertake a concept-definition phase, after which it will proceed with an "X-plane" programme.
The idea, Kendall says, is to preserve the USA's engineering design talents which, if allowed to atrophy, would be extremely difficult to rebuild.
"High-performance aircraft is one area where I'm starting something helicopters is another possibility," says Kendall. "We haven't done a new attack helicopter, for example, in quite a long time."
The benefits would be to preserve engineering design talent and shore up the industrial base, says Kendall. It would also mature cutting-edge technologies so they could be readily applied to next-generation operational aircraft, he adds. But, most importantly, it preserves the ability to create an integrated design and fly it, which would build confidence in the technology.
"I think something like this is important in the USA if we want to sustain a rotary-wing technical base," says Paul Kaminski, head of the Pentagon's Defense Science Board, who formerly held Kendall's position. "We haven't done a lot of fundamental work in new designs in rotary-wing aircraft for some time now."
Dan Goure, an analyst at the Lexington Institute, notes that "with the exception of the Sikorsky S-97 Raider, there really hasn't been anything new in helicopters in a very, very long time".
Jacques Gansler, a former Pentagon procurement chief, and Roger Lipitz, chair in public policy at the University of Maryland, make the argument that "it would be desirable to maintain our leadership in that helicopter field. Therefore, investments in that area would be important."
The DoD used to partner NASA to develop such technologies, but that effort has largely ended. "Which makes something like this even more important," notes Kaminski.
One of the biggest advantages to building prototypes is it affords policymakers options to put any useful designs that emerge into production at a later date, adds Kaminski. That is especially true if a production effort is not financially feasible in the imminent future.
However, the importance of competition is stressed by Gansler. Ideally, multiple contractors should submit proposals and at least two different prototype designs should be built to broaden the industrial base and force competition, he says.
Developing prototypes could afford the DoD a chance to radically advance technology. "One of the things we might consider doing is looking at some less aggressive and some more aggressive paths and maybe we'll be fortunate and see both turn out," Kaminski says. "In that case, we might have a hard decision on what to do. Maybe we won't be successful in either, in which case we might see the industry decline some. Or we may be successful in one of the two."
Fiduciary discipline must be among the critical drivers for any prototype programme the DoD embarks upon. "A key piece of the R&D [research and development] effort for the next-generation helicopter is affordability. Cost will be a principal design consideration," says Gansler. But while prototyping projects such as Kendall's proposed attack helicopter are necessary to sustain the industrial base, Kaminski cautions that such enterprises are not sufficient to do so on their own.
"Eventually, you have to put something into production to keep the manufacturing base to go with it," he says.
Prototypes should be designed to transition into production easily, Gansler says. Cautionary examples are presented by the long line of failed US attempts to develop a new helicopter design in recent decades, the most recent being the ill-fated Boeing-Sikorsky RAH-66 Comanche.
But transitioning a design from a prototype to a production model tends to be expensive. "Where the expense comes is in transitioning to the scale of an engineering and manufacturing development programme and into production," Kaminski says.
Another problem building prototypes cannot address are problems below the level of the big prime contractors, Gansler says. Often, second- and third-tier component manufacturers, which often supply multiple primes, are much more vulnerable during a downturn than larger companies.
Richard Aboulafia, an analyst at the Teal Group, suggests that instead of building prototypes of a new airframe, it might be wiser to invest in the design and development of subsystems. Prototype airframes have historically tended to be single-purpose technology demonstrators, he notes.
"I'd say, let's look at bang for buck," Aboulafia says. "What if we were to take this airframe development concept and divert the cash to engines, avionics, weapons and sensors. Would we not be better serving the warfighters and taxpayer?"
However, it is entirely possible that there is indeed a critical art of systems integration or airframe design that is being lost, adds Aboulafia. In that case, a prototype could be very useful in preserving those skills. "You would have to do a trade study," he says.
Kaminski says he is an advocate of "aggressive prototypes" that can potentially offer revolutionary capabilities, particularly in this sort of difficult budget environment.
"It's not a bad time to take some risks expecting that many of the things won't turn out," he says. "But you might see some very interesting game-changing designs come out of some of these activities."
Potentially, such efforts could yield breakthroughs in range, payload and speed. It could also yield benefits in avionics and stealth. But perhaps more importantly, at policy level, it gives senior decision-makers a menu of options to choose from once the fiscal climate is more favourable.
"The prototyping programmes aren't that expensive in the big scheme of things," notes Kaminski. However, Gansler cautions that the DoD should not build prototypes simply for the sake of building them. "What good is that? You can't use it," he says. "Even If you have demonstrated it in terms of technology, if you put it on the shelf until you need it, you still have to then produce it in volume affordably."